Within comic books and graphic novels, like most media, have misrepresentation in of all genders. This goes very far back to the beginning of graphic novels, but the history of representation goes way before it.
Sexism, especially towards women, has always been a big issue. In the media, women had constantly been misrepresented. An example of this is story books, which is heavily linked in with the later creation of comic books. In traditional children stories, women were usually portrayed as delicate and needed to be protected. This idea was ingrained in children, and showed was women were expected to be like.
Women were also portrayed badly within books, and magazines later on. In old literature, women were normally seen to fit into negative categories. Either being a vindictive, immoral, or evil. Or being virtuous, eg being morally good, pretty, delicate and doing what men want. Women were often sexualised too.
When comic books/strips in newspapers started appearing in the 20th century, women had already started to become more independent. Right at the start of the 20th century, suffragettes had been fighting for women’s rights for throughout Victorian times. Women started to get political access and work rights, which was a huge step in history. Although women had done a lot to gain independence, a lot of peoples views stayed the same. This was mainly men, but it was women too.
The fist ever comic strips in newspapers had lots of influential women creators. A lot of the stories focused around women and were made for women. In the 1930s and 40s, super hero comics started appearing. This didn’t mean the disappearance of female writers or creators. There were also a lot of female super action heroes such as Brenda Starr and Miss Fury. These women were often seen being independent; strong and smart.
However, as time went on, big industries like DC and marvel started gaining male popularity and the amount of women authors and characters started decreasing. The women within comic books started to be replaced with the ‘ideal’ women representation. Male superhero character were portrayed as strong and masculine. Although female superheroes still existed, they were increasingly sexualised and portrayed as weaker and more likely to get into trouble. This strangely back tracked within history, making women portrayed poorly in the media again. Which leads to present day.
Outfits/costumes and body types (comic & film)
One of the first things you notice when reading a comic/graphic novel or watching a film, is a characters outfit or costume. Looking into the costumes is very important into seeing some of the misrepresentation of genders.
When looking at women characters costumes or outfits, it can be easy to see the issue with representation for women.
One of the first influential and popular female superheroes was Wonder Woman. In her first appearance, she was wearing a very revealing and tight outfit. From the picture below, at first glance it portrays a strong and powerful women. A lot of people say that because she’s wearing a skimpy outfit, it shows that she is even more independent because it reflects that she is strong and individual. One of the more recent drawers and creators for the wonder woman comic said “… [Wonder Woman is] also a warrior, so I wanted [it] to be a really strong, solid costume. It hints at the Amazon culture but also fits in[to] the modern world… It’s strong and reflective of who Diana is, and is still very recognizable as a Wonder Woman costume.”
However, on the flip side it could be said that she is dressed to please a male audience, as she is sexualised and her outfit is extremely revealing. The outfit wonder woman is very similar to most women super hero outfits in comics. Most of them are tight and low cut.
The costumes in film adaptions of comics are usually similar to the original comic. However, sometimes they are adapted to fit a modern audience.
A big example of this, that annoys me personally, is the recent adaption of ‘suicide squad’. The film adaption was one of the biggest anticipated films of this year. They adapted the original comic to fit a modern day setting. For the female section I will focus on Harley Quinn, and come back to the male characters.
Harley Quinn is the only female in the recent film. She is a big character in the DC universe, being a sidekick to the Joker in the Batman comics. A lot of people see her as an important character in the comics, as she was a completely different representation of a woman in comics. In the original comics, she is abused by the joker and is extremely over powered. This was seen as important because showing women being abuse and showing the harsh reality of it was completely unheard of at the time, and may of put it into reality of the male audience. She was very sexualized originally, but later became less and less provocative and more independent. Although she was still involved in the abuse, it made the Joker have a harsher light and make people realise how awful abuse is, emotional and physical.
She had a lot of spin offs in later years and was constantly adapting. In the original comics her costume was extremely different to the film. To the left is an image of the original Harley Quinn. Although, she has the tight costume like the other superheroes, she is completely covered up. Her costume changed later on in more recent comics.
Then with the film adaption, her costume and character completely changed. The character was completely over sexualized with her costume, wearing next to no clothes throughout the whole film. A lot of people said it was character development; going back to the original Harley Quinn; or modernisation. I personally think it was to appeal to the male audience. This is because there is no need for the costume choice, and it was adapted to fit the audience not the times.
Although the interpretation of women in comics and graphic novels is more extreme and more looked at, males are misrepresented too.
In comics and graphic novels male characters are normally depicted as strong and masculine. This is shown through there costumes and their body types. This may of started because the people that write comic books are mainly men. They reflect the ‘ideal body type’ for men, especially on superheroes or the main protagonist.
An example of a superhero that has these characteristics is Batman. Batman is shown as very masculine, with obvious muscles and is tall. This shows that he is a strong character and is powerful. In comparison to the female costumes, he is completely covered up and is showing next to no skin. Also on the picture below is Robin, batman’s sidekick in the earlier comics. He is meant to be a young teenager, and even he is depicted as extremely strong and toned.
Like I said before, the costumes in film adaptions of comics are usually similar to the original comic. However, sometimes they are adapted to fit a modern audience.
An example of a superhero film that has recently been made with a male superhero is Captain America. The character was in his own comics and also in spin offs, and group comics like avengers. These were more recently made into a film. In the comic, as you can see, he is defiantly very muscly and he is extremely masculine. Without a mask, he was drawn as features that were scene as attractive at the time. Eg blonde hair and chiseled jaw line.
In the film version, Captain America or Steve Roger’s costumes are very similar to the comic, as well as his body. However, the only difference is how the character is topless quite a lot. This will increase the female audience as it seeing a man that is attractive with draw in people that are attracted to males. He is defiantly overly sexualized compared to the comics, which is probably to increase female audiences.
Personality and Story lines
The storylines and personalities of the characters add to the characters and the way they are depicted. The costumes normally mirror the personality.
There is defiantly more male superheroes of comic characters then females. However, there still are female characters in most comics.
The first thing that can be noticed about female superheroes is the name. Looking at the classic super heroes, most females have names that are associated with the male alter ego, or are made obvious that they are female with their names. For example: Wonder woman; cat woman; bat-girl; she-hulk; or superwoman. These names all link to a male super hero and contain the word woman or girl. A lot of people see this as discrimination as male super heroes normally have gender natural names. For example: Hulk; Thor; the flash; Captain America. A lot of people say this shows that there has to be a distinguish between female and male super heroes.
Most female characters are defiantly sexualized within comics and graphic novels, especially the one’s made by men. I have already talked about the costumes side of women sexualization, but there is more to it.
One of the ways women are sexualised in comics and films, is how there sexuality is there ‘weakness’ or there main ‘weapon.’ This is more in comic books containing superheroes. Men are normally seen as strong or intelligent, and them using that to defeat the enemy, whereas women are normally seen using there sexuality to there advantage. An example of this is Poisen Ivy in the Batman comics. She is often seen, as a lot of female villans are, seducing her enemy to gain control. (As seen below).
Women are also shown using their sexuality as a weakness. In comics women are usually over powered by a man that they have fallen in love for. This happen quite a lot in the films too. An example of this is in the second Avengers where the only female strong character, black widow, starts to get feelings for Bruce Banner eg the Hulk. In the first film and in the comics, she is a strong character who is very independent. They did have moments within the film where she is very ‘feminine’ but not as much as other films. However, this all changes in the second film. She starts to show a main weakness, which eventually in the film makes her crack, which is Bruce Banner. In the lead up they show her in a more sexual way, which makes her weaker in the fights. There is literally a scene where Bruce falls on top of her, in a very seductive pose in the middle of a fight scene. However, some people may say this is to show character development or going deeper into the character. However, most of the male characters weaknesses link to a woman or their sexuality. For example: Hulk is his anger and superman is cyroptonight.
Woman are normally shown as the weaker sex, like I said in the previous paragraph, but it isn’t just to do with their sexuality. Women are normally the ones to be kidnapped or get captured in comics and films, and then they get saved by a male character. Or they are seen a lot getting hurt or injured, and again, a man has to save them.
Men are normally portrayed in a different way to women. Here are a few:
Men are normally depicted as being stronger then women. Men are normally shown as having big muscles and being tall. This adds to the fact that men are usually based around the ideal body type for men, which I wrote about earlier. In contrast, this is very similar to women as they are modelled showing an ideal body shape.
A lot of male characters normally are angry or shown as frustrated. This is shown through speech, body language and actions towards other people. This can be through big fight scenes; arguments; or just general speech and interaction. An example of this is the character Batman. In the original comics and the more recent films, he is shown as a very lonely and aggressive character. The Batman comics also are more violent and darker then others, but is still one of the most popular with young children.
The Effect of these Representations
There is always going to be arguments about the ideas that come with characters personalities in any sort of fictional media. However, I think that the effects of these representations can be damaging.
The main effect I think is on children. The comics and films are mainly aimed at males and boys. The young boys who watch or read the comics will see the masculine characters, and take them literally. You can argue that it’s good for them to see a strong powerful role model, that helps and saves people, but it isn’t just that. They will also want to be them, and may carry that into their future. Not everyone can be strong with muscles, or tall, or have certain hair or characteristics. But by seeing the same sort of man replicated over and over again in the same sort of powerful position can be damaging, as the person may think that is what the ideal male should look like. Most of the time, its impossible to be that muscley without the help of drugs. The rest of it won’t help with self confidence. Also, most of the most famous super heroes are white, no disabilities or learning problems. If a child carries one of these issues or is a different colour, this can add to the low confidence.
Another effect that it could have on children is the way women are presented. Young boys might come used to seeing women sexualised and think that is how normal women dress and behave. This isn’t good, because a lot of women aren’t like comic book women or women that are in films. Furthermore, a lot of young girls who read the comic and watch the films might think that’s how they should behave. On the other hand, a lot of people say its good for young girls to see strong female characters in superhero films. As much as I think it’s true, I think these films don’t show how a women can be independent or strong as they are all sexualised and dependent on men. Young girls seeing these characters might make them want to be like them from a young age, which I think is bad. All you have to do is look at Halloween costumes, and you can see the effect it makes.
Another part of how the representation can damage kids is the violence, especially associated with the films. Seeing this violence can make children think it’s the norm. This can make children think the violence is normal and behave violently.
In my opinion, the representation of both genders in comics and graphic novels are poor. I don’t think they represent or mirror real life people. However, I do think it’s changing. More and more comics are being created with both genders having realistic and a wide range of characters. For example ‘The Return of Zita the Spacegirl’, a comic about a young girl who is a superhero. Even Marvel and DC have started creating comics with LGBT characters and characters with different ethnicities or disabilities.
I think media is changing, but it’s not fully equal yet. I think it’s really important to keep creating characters that mirror real people, to show real representation of what people are like. Feminism is a very important part of society, and should be pushed in the media because it is one of the biggest influences.